Everyone knows that there are a number of interview killer questions that can stop an interviewee dead in their tracks. These can be both general, and ones that relate specifically to the academic environment. Here are a few pointers to get you started.
So, why this job?
Of course, the only true answer to this is – particularly at the beginning of a career – because, like Everest, it’s there! But we all know that this is not what any interview panel wants to hear. Do your research beforehand and don’t generalize. Make sure there is something concrete and unique to them (their research priorities, or teaching offer) that you can point to as a key component of your decision to apply.
Can you identify a weakness in yourself?
As with the above question, this sort of question and its response (e.g. ‘yes, I’m often told I’m too meticulous/careful’, etc) are by now too widely known to be helpful. If asked this sort of question, be truthful about something about your experience – not your character – that they might themselves have picked up on, and tell them how you propose to address it. For instance, if your research record is not quite REF-ready, tell them so, and impress them with your detailed awareness of the REF’s demands, a timeline of research outputs, and a proposed publisher or two. If you haven’t had much teaching experience, acknowledge this but say how much you look forward to building on the experience you have had, and mention a particular module you would like to develop.
What’s your philosophy?
This question usually refers to teaching, but might be lobbed in as a general question about your approach to academia more generally. As always, it pays to prepare some concrete examples to include in your response – both of what you have done in the past, and what you would hope to do in this particular post.
What are the key issues in academia today?
As ever, you should demonstrate knowledge not just of your subject, but of the profession more generally. This is hard to do if you are just starting out, but there are ways in which you can professionalize yourself from the very beginning – these include keeping abreast of key publications from HEFCE, the funding bodies, the universities themselves, and the major academic news outlets in general. Make sure you know what the NSS (National Student Survey) is, for instance? Why do institutions think it is important? Similarly, you should demonstrate good familiarity with the terms of the REF, admissions policies, postgraduate funding landscapes, and the research councils’ priorities.
You may not be asked about any of these directly, but if you can make reference to any of these in your responses you will impress the panel as not just an able researcher and /or teacher, but as a potential colleague who will be able to take a full role in the strategic direction of the department.
What might we expect in the future?
Make sure you really know what’s going on in terms of government policy as well, and try to anticipate some key developments in UK HE. The TEF is likely to be the next big thing, so make sure you know what its effects might be, and how you might be able to participate in it. If this comes in the form of a question along the lines of ‘where do you see yourself/ your career in 5 years?’ it’s a good idea to include some reference to the wider academic context while you flesh out your own aspirations.
Have you anything to ask us?
Perhaps the most important point here is to not appear surprised by or coy about this question. Respond smoothly and professionally, with a question that your panel can answer readily, rather than with a question that might put them on the spot. But make sure your question is an engaged and interesting one – you want the interview panel to remember you, not to get the impression that the important bit of the interview is over.